How to say goodbye to PFAS

International researchers propose elimination of PFAS in nonessential products using a 3-category sorting system to halt the buildup of the chemicals in the environment. Image credit: Chemical & Engineering News

Industrial chemicals known as PFAS are increasingly found in the environment today and pose substantial threats to human and ecological health. To combat the public health crisis caused by these contaminants, a team of over 50 international scientists and regulators outlined new approaches to manage them in the Zurich Statement on Future Actions on PFAS. One policy recommended was to initiate a reduction and eventual elimination of nonessential uses of the chemicals.

Rather than halting use of PFAS-containing products altogether, the researchers suggest differentiating products based on necessity of use and availability of alternatives that can be used to make them without PFAS. For example, clothing made with PFAS to confer flame resistance for workers in the oil and gas industry have no substitutes and are critical for the safety of the workers. However, dental floss coated with PFAS can easily be replaced with multiple alternatives on the market that do not contain these chemicals.

Categories suggested for use in sorting products containing the chemicals include ‘nonessential,’ ‘substitutable,’ and ‘essential.’ Nonessential products are those that are not necessary for health, safety, or the functioning of society, such as PFAS use in cosmetics. The use of the chemicals in these products would thus be phased out or banned. Substitutable products include those that perform important functions but have suitable alternatives available, such as PFAS use in the making of waterproof jackets. Essential products are those in which suitable alternatives have not been developed, such as PFAS use in protective clothing for oil and gas industry workers.

Ian T. Cousins is a professor of environmental science and analytical chemistry at Stockholm University who led the team of researchers that proposed this plan. Cousins says manufacturers need to design molecules with a built-in ability to degrade after use, rather than creating more persistent chemicals.

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